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Fun with chemistry

Back in the 1960s, a boy concocted smoke bombs and hot-air balloons in his basement lab.

By Robert Klose / March 19, 2008

Experiment: A boy stirred a chemical concoction he made while playing with a chemistry set in 1955.

Lambert/Getty Images/File

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When I was a kid growing up in the 1960s, you could buy an entire chemistry set for a buck. They came in what looked like Quaker Oats cylinders, each one graded for the complexity of the experiments it contained. My parents – neither of whom knew a whit about chemistry – bought me one of these every few months, good behavior permitting.

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But these chemistry sets were just the tip of the iceberg. The epicenter of my scientific enterprise was in the basement of our Jersey City, N.J., house – a homemade laboratory where I whiled away many an hour doing my "research."

I had a lab bench, replete with shelves for my chemicals and glassware, an alcohol lamp, various metal stands and clamps, and, of course, catalogs from which I ordered my supplies.

I also had a stack of books (from companies that advertised in Science & Mechanics magazine) describing the wonders I could conjure out of sight and earshot of prying adults ("Kids! Build a Real Laser With a Flashbulb! Plans only $4.95").

What amazes me now when I look back on those days is that my parents showed so little curiosity about what I was doing down there. I think that they were just happy to know where I was. And they must have thought that my time in the laboratory was well spent because, at the supper table, they listened attentively as I regaled them with descriptions of (most of) my experiments. And I'm sure they took quiet pride in the ability of their 11-year-old to say things like "potassium permanganate," "pH apparatus," and "massive corundum."

Oh, yes, did I forget to mention that I was only 11? No matter. I was driven. And I did learn a lot of things. For instance, when you mix 50 milliliters of water and 50 milliliters of alcohol, you don't get a hundred milliliters of liquid. Lemon juice makes a great invisible ink – to see the secret message you need only warm the paper over a flame. Vinegar and baking soda, in addition to making "volcanoes," will also shine tarnished coins. When I turned 12, I built a rocket using chemicals I had charmed out of the local butcher and pharmacist. I launched it in my backyard, raising the ire of Mrs. Endlich, who lived next door. She called the police. That's when I discovered that my laboratory could also double as a hiding place until the heat was off.

In my defense, I'd like to mention that I was not the only kid with a laboratory in his basement. Many kids had them. In an age where the success – and threat – of Sputnik was still echoing throughout the land, kids were being encouraged to pursue science out of love of country, lest the Russians get to the moon ahead of us. So the building of rockets, homemade firecrackers, smoke bombs, and the like were regarded with a wink and a nod, if not outright approval. Today I might be sent to a youth center and my parents declared unfit. But in the '60s, I was nothing short of a patriot.

Of course, there were limits, and I reached mine one Halloween when I built a hot-air balloon out of a plastic trash bag and it floated down the street, right up to Mrs. Ruben's second-floor window. In a panic, she called the police. This time they caught me. But after a chewing out, they sent me on my way.

That was how it was back then – most things were handled in the neighborhood, and to be sure, I never floated another hot-air balloon down the street. Once again, if that had happened today, I could be writing this recollection from a state institution for bad, bad boys.

I now have my own 11-year-old. When he asks me to tell him stories from my childhood, I invariably invoke the adventures generated in my basement laboratory: the bubbling flasks, the colored powders, the gooey concoctions, and, of course, the great Mrs. Ruben hot-air balloon adventure. All of these enthrall him, and he laughs and laughs.

But my recollections are bittersweet, because kids don't build those kinds of worlds anymore. Instead, they buy them, and rather than occupying a large corner of the family basement, they hold in the palms of their hands electronic games that do the creating for them.

In this light, my heart was lifted recently, if only for a moment, when my son saw an ad in some unsolicited mail-order catalog. "Look, Dad!" he called out. "You can learn how to make your own stink bombs."

And then he turned the page.

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